Violent crime in England in 1919: post-war anxieties and press narratives

Emsley, Clive (2008). Violent crime in England in 1919: post-war anxieties and press narratives. Continuity and Change, 23(1) pp. 173–195.



In the immediate aftermath of the First World War a variety of commentators in England expressed concern that men returning from the war had become so brutalized and inured to violence that their behaviour would continue to be violent at home. But, while the stage was set for a ‘moral panic’ with the brutalized veteran as the new folk devil, no such panic materialized. This essay makes a detailed study of two contrasting newspapers to assess how violent crime was assessed and interpreted after the war. It notes an increase in the use of the concept of the ‘unwritten law’ (the traditional ‘right’ claimed by many men to chastise a disrespectful wife or a man that despoiled or dishonoured a wife) in the courts and the press, probably as an element in re-establishing pre-war gender roles. It also describes how the idea of shell-shock was deployed as a defence in criminal cases, something that probably contributed to a popular recognition that men might suffer mental breakdowns as easily as women. In conclusion, it suggests some of the factors that may have inhibited the press in identifying the violent veteran as a new folk devil.

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